The flight from certainty. Many of the arcane problems of philosophy are created by philosophy itself. The leading American scourge of relativists and postmodernists offers a way out of the maze
Mind, Language and Society: Doing Philosophy in the Real World
John Searle Weidenfeld & Nicols
Outside academic philosophy, John Searle is perhaps best known for his Chinese Room Argument. This was intended to counter the more extravagant claims - in fact, they are statements of faith - of the hard enthusiasts for Artificial Intelligence (AI) who believe that a computer can be made to think in a quasi-human way.
Searle's brilliant response was to imagine a room in which sits a man who cannot read Chinese. Into this room instructions written in Chinese characters are passed. The man compares the characters to a list he has and then passes out a response which is, according to the list, correct. To anyone outside the room, it seems the man can understand Chinese. But inside, we can see he is just uncomprehendingly following instructions. So it is with computers. They follow rules but they lack understanding.
You could say the apparent inwardness of the man's mind is an illusion. The reality is the behaviour. But, since I can perfectly well imagine following the rules without understanding a word of Chinese, this feels completely inadequate. It simply deals with the inwardness by denying its existence. In truth, I have never heard the Chinese Room Argument convincingly refuted and the continuing failure of AI to produce anything like a thinking machine seems to indicate that Searle is right.
But Searle's scepticism about the claims of hard AI does not make him a "mysterion", a believer in any ultimate mystery about consciousness or anything else. Rather, as this book establishes, he is a solid, Enlightenment realist.
"I think," he writes, "that the universe exists quite independently of our minds and that, within the limits set by our evolutionary endowments, we can come to comprehend its nature."
This is, in the late 20th century, a radical position. As Searle points out in this book, the Enlightenment certainties of the 18th and 19th centuries have taken a beating in the 20th. This, he rightly believes, is not primarily an intellectual phenomenon. Rather it was a result of the vast and very precise catastrophe of the first world war which undermined the progressive optimism of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, there have also been profound intellectual challenges to that optimism. The conviction of Newtonian mechanics collapsed in the face of relativity and quantum theory. Problems with set theory and Kurt Godel's demonstration of the incompleteness of arithmetic subverted mathematics. Freud questioned the possibility of human rationality and science itself was redefined - at least for some - as a cultural construction.
Searle briefly refutes each of these points, but the main purpose of this book is not defensive. He wishes to lead an Enlightenment counterattack by establishing the broad structure of a rational world view that rejects the banal materialism of the hard AI enthusiasts, postmodernism and Cartesian dualism as well as many of the more arid aspects of contemporary philosophy.
The book is non-technical and intended for the general reader. This is an intellectual rather than simply a marketing point because Searle agrees with Wittgenstein that many of the more arcane problems of philosophy are created by philosophy itself, that truth lies before us in plain sight and can, therefore, be expressed in plain language. He goes further than Wittgenstein when he says that "self-deception and the will to power" are further sources of philosophical error. This, I assume, is primarily directed at the arrogant mystifications of the postmodernists who would deny all status and meaning to the concepts "truth" or "reality".
It is, he admits, an ambitious project for a short and essentially introductory work. But, rather than being seen as a primer, the book is best seen as a brief tour of the conclusions of the lifetime's work of one of America's most engaged and engrossing thinkers.
What are these conclusions? Well, essentially that we live in one world, that it is intelligible and that it "all hangs together". These conclusions are not as modest as they seem precisely because of the devastation wrought by 20th-century uncertainty - much of which, Searle thinks, is intellectually feeble and dubiously motivated. For example, there have been the highly influential denials of realism in the works of Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty. Searle has answers to these denials - they cannot be summarised in this space - but he also insists such arguments are born of a will to power. If there is no reality, then the humanities are on the same footing as science and the academic balance of power is re- established. This, it seems to me, is cutting but plausible criticism.
Searle takes the more traditional view that science deals with questions that can be answered and philosophy - and, presumably, the rest of the humanities - with those that can't. The main body of this book is concerned with clarifying the boundary between the two and with demonstrating that, even when the questions can't be answered, we can, when we are being philosophers, draw general conclusions about the likely contours of any solution.
The success or otherwise of the book depends, therefore, not on how wrong Searle's opponents are but rather on how convincing is the alternative world view he advances. My answer is, I am afraid, that I am not sure. There are, I think, obvious flaws, which may be explained by the brevity of his coverage of such large areas. For example, he argues against the idea that "we must have a special kind of certainty when it comes to knowing our own conscious states". We may be mistaken about the world we perceive, but can we ever be said to be mistaken about our own mind? Searle says we can through self-deception, misinterpretation or through a misunderstanding of our intentions or decisions. We may think we have already decided to lose weight but our subsequent behaviour proves us wrong.
This seems to miss - or perhaps simply to over-compress - an important point about the nature of our self-awareness. For if I am wrong about my conscious state, then who can be right? The reality may be complex and ambiguous, but it is, surely, possessed of a different quality of certainty from, say, my belief that it is raining - a belief on which others can be consulted. Searle's full version of this argument would be important because it is clearly pivotal in his dismissal of dualism.
But elsewhere, there are profound and persuasive arguments about the nature of intentionality and its role in human institutions as well as completely convincing destructions of the simple materialist position. Searle's ultimate importance as a philosopher may reside in his lucid sense of the inadequacy of much contemporary scientistic thought which assumes omnipotence merely on the basis of the wonders of current technology. In his last chapter he pointedly draws attention to the consistent and continuing failure of the natural sciences "to solve the problems that most perplex us". Whether he thinks this failure is intrinsic and, therefore, eternal, as did Wittgenstein, is uncertain.
What the book does not address - fair enough, it is not that kind of book - is the crisis created by 20th-century uncertainty and by the success of the easy scientism that Searle deplores. He does his bit by exposing the inadequacy of both the uncertainty and the scientism. But he does not take the next step of exposing the value vacuum they entail. In that sense the word "real" in his subtitle is not quite justified - his reality remains too much that of the Berkeley campus rather than of society. Yet this book remains a despatch from the frontline of where we are now and should be read with urgency even as we gallop into the flames of the scientistic, technocratic and, as Searle well knows, deluded future.
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